Boston and Albany Railroad Arch Bridge, Becket, Mass

An early 20th century postcard showing the view looking east along the Boston and Albany Railroad, with a stone arch bridge on the left side and the Westfield River on the right. Image from author’s collection.

The scene in 2021:

The first railroads in the United States were constructed starting in the late 1820s. These were mostly concentrated in the northeast, and they tended to be relatively short lines that linked neighboring cities. Here in New England, Boston soon emerged as an important railroad hub, and by the mid-1830s it had three different lines that radiated outward as far as Lowell, Providence, and Worcester. However, railroad investors had far more ambitious plans, including one proposal that would extended the line west of Worcester all the way to Albany.

Throughout the colonial era, and into the early 19th century, Boston had been one of the most important seaports in the present-day United States. However, as settlers moved west, and as the country acquired new territory, Boston found itself on the far eastern edge of a nation that was rapidly expanding westward. The opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 further threatened Boston by linking New York City with the Midwest, making it the primary seaport for trade with the inland regions.

As early as 1826, the Massachusetts state legislature had begun exploring the possibility of a railroad from Albany to Boston. This would prevent Boston from becoming economically isolated from the rest of the country, by providing an alternate route to the sea for goods transported along the Erie Canal. The state subsequently hired prominent civil engineer James F. Baldwin to examine potential routes through the state. The most promising was a southerly route, which would head west from Worcester through Springfield and Pittsfield before crossing into New York. This is, more or less, the route that would ultimately be opened a little over a decade later.

To achieve this goal, the Western Railroad was incorporated in 1833, although construction work did not start until 1837. The eastern half of the railroad, from Worcester to Springfield, was relatively easy to build, and it opened on October 1, 1839. However, the western portion, which crossed the mountains of the Berkshires, was a far more challenging engineering feat. By this point, railroad technology was still in its infancy, and there were still significant questions about the ability of steam locomotives to operate on steep grades. Some doubted whether a locomotive could handle grades greater than one percent (one foot of vertical rise for every hundred feet of track), and many early railroads used steam-powered inclined planes to pull trains up steep sections of the route. However, any crossing of the Berkshires would require consistent grades in excess of one percent, in some places even exceeding 1.5 percent.

To reach the divide between the Connecticut River and Housatonic River watersheds, the route of the railroad followed the Westfield River to the west of Springfield. In the town of Huntington, the river splits into three main branches, with the railroad continuing upstream along the west branch. From there, the river valley becomes increasingly narrow and winding, particularly in the last 13 miles from Chester to the watershed divide in Washington.

In order to oversee this project, the railroad hired George Washington Whistler as chief engineer. An 1819 graduate of West Point, Whistler was one of the nation’s leading civil engineers, and he was involved in the construction of many early railroads. He would go on to earn international fame from his accomplishments here on the Western Railroad, and Czar Nicholas I of Russia subsequently hired him to build the Saint Petersburg–Moscow Railway. However, Whistler’s fame would ultimately be eclipsed by his son, the prominent artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler, who was a young child living with his family in Springfield when George Washington Whistler built the Western Railroad.

For Whistler, the most difficult part of the project would be the 13 miles between Chester and Washington, where the railroad rose in elevation from 600 feet in Chester to 1,459 feet at the watershed divide. This was a serious challenge, given the concerns about the technical limitations of steam locomotives, but Whistler also had to build this railroad within the confines of a narrow, sinuous river gorge. This meant the railroad would require a series of deep rock cuts and high embankments, along with repeated crossings of the river, in order to maintain a reasonable grade. Even so, the finished railroad would have a six-mile section with an average grade of 1.51 percent, and a maximum grade of 1.57 percent.

Probably the most distinctive feature of this section of the railroad is its many bridges. The railroad crossed the river a total of 21 times in these 13 miles, and ten of these bridges were masonry arch bridges, including the one shown here in these two photos. The original intent had been to use simpler bridges with rubble masonry abutments, but these would have been vulnerable to spring flooding, so the railroad opted for more substantial arch bridges. This required excavating down to bedrock to anchor the abutments, and it also meant bringing in quarried stone from elsewhere, since the local stone proved to be of inferior quality. This was a significant expense for the railroad, as these quarried blocks—which weighed upwards of a thousand pounds each—had to be transported along rough roads to these remote work sites along the river.

Aside from the bridges, other labor-intensive work included the many cuts and fills along the railroad bed. A little to the east of the bridge in this photo, just beyond the curve in the distance, is a deep rock cut, measuring about 575 feet long and 30 to 40 feet deep. In the days before dynamite and other high explosives, this work would have been done using only black powder and hand tools such as picks and shovels. Beyond this rock cut was an embankment, with a long stone retaining wall that had to be built to keep the railroad bed from sliding off the steep cliff down to the river. A few miles to the west of the stone bridges, at the highest point of the railroad in the town of Washington, was an even larger rock cut. It was about a half mile long, and 55 feet deep at its deepest point.

All of this work, including the unanticipated need for stone arch bridges, led to significant cost overruns for the Western Railroad. In 1838, prior to the start of construction, the cost of building section of the railroad to the west of the Connecticut River was estimated at $2.1 million. The actual cost turned out to be a little over $2.5 million, including nearly $1 million just to build a 13-mile section here in the Berkshires. The single most expensive mile was just a little to the east of the scene in these photos, between mile markers 127 and 128. Within that mile, the railroad crossed the river three times on large stone arch bridges, and cost nearly $220,000. The company’s January 1841 annual report explained some of the reasons for these added expenses, quoting the engineer (presumably Whistler), who wrote about the challenges of building the railroad through this section along the Westfield River:

With the limited knowledge of the character of the stream here, at the time of the original estimate, and, judging of its effects in times of freshets, from the comparatively unstable character of the structures then existing on the turnpike, occupying almost the immediate line of the rail-road, in tolerable security, it was then judged that structures of the more ordinary kind, with common rubble masonry for bridge abutments and side walls, would give ample security to the road, and such was estimated for. But the experience in time of our personal knowledge of the effects of freshets in this stream, proved the necessity of abandoning such structures, and resorting to others of a more costly and permanent character. Stone arches of large openings were adopted, requiring masonry of a very different and superior character to support them;—rendering it necessary too to resort to great depths in search of permanent rock foundations below the bed of the stream. This was the more readily acceded to at the time, from the belief (as every appearance indicated) that materials suitable for such structures would be obtained from the rock cuts in their immediate vicinity. But soon after they were commenced, and the character of the stone exposed by the opening of the cuts, it proved entirely unfit; and the contractor was compelled to resort to quarrying and hauling the stone from a distance, and over roads almost impassible;—thus rendering it necessary to increase his prices to meet this additional cost.

The work of actually building the railroad was largely done by immigrant laborers, primarily the Irish. At one point there were several thousand workers employed here, and this is evident in the 1840 census, which was conducted in the midst of the railroad construction. In a sort of precursor to the later railroad boom towns that would follow the First Transcontinental Railroad several decades later, the town of Middlefield—located on the north side of the river—saw a particularly dramatic increase in population. From a population of 720 in 1830, Middlefield grew to 1,717 in 1840, with the census noting that 686 were from “Middlefield proper,” while the rest were counted as “extraneous population.”

These workers generally lived in temporary shantytowns along the river, and the census indicates that most were in their 20s or 30s, with few over the age of 40. The 1840 census does not provide much specific demographic information, and only the heads of the households are individually named, but the census data suggests that most of these men lived here with their families. Most of the households included both a man and a woman who were between the ages of 20 and 40, along with several young children who were generally under the age of 10. The surnames of the heads of household were overwhelmingly Irish, with Murphy being a particularly common name among the workers in Middlefield.

The arrival of so many foreign immigrants in a small, rural community was not without controversy. Early in the construction process, in the spring of 1839, the Hampshire Gazette published an article titled, “The Irish on our Public Works,” which addressed concerns about the societal impact of the Irish immigrants who were working on the railroad. The article warned that, “[i]f some measures are not taken for the education and moral reformation of the multitudes of Irish and other foreign emigrants that swarm the country, our republic will be much in danger from them.” Perhaps in response to these concerns, a few months later a resident of Middlefield began raising funds to establish three schools for the children of the laborers. It seems unclear as to whether these contributions were motivated by genuine altruism or by nativist fears about an under-educated immigrant class, but a subsequent article in the Boston Evening Transcript declared that the students were “learning rapidly, and doing credit to the labors of their benefactors.”

These workers remained here throughout the summer of 1841, and the railroad was ultimately completed in the early fall, with the final tracks laid at the rock cut in Washington on October 2, 1841. The railroad opened two days later, linking Boston and Albany. In the process, the railroad set a number of records. It was, up to that point, the longest and most expensive railroad in America, and it was also the first to be built through mountains without using steam-powered inclined planes to assist locomotives. As such, it was a significant engineering milestone, and it was enough to gain the attention of the czar, who brought Whistler to Russia as soon as his work here on the Western Railroad was finished.

However, despite the completion of the railroad, there would continue to be challenges, including a fatal accident that occurred on October 5, 1841, just a day after the line opened. The railroad originally just had one track, with occasional passing sidings for trains heading in opposite directions, including ones at Chester and Westfield. On this particular day, both the eastbound and westbound trains were given instructions to meet at Chester before proceeding. However, the eastbound conductor apparently never received this message, and was expecting to meet the other train further down the line in Westfield. This resulted in a head-on collision about four miles west of Westfield, killing the conductor of the eastbound train and one passenger, along with injuring many others. The accident was a personal tragedy for George Washington Whistler, whose niece, Caroline Bloodgood, was on the train. She was among those injured, and her young son was the one passenger who was killed in the accident.

The Western Railroad did manage to help dispel the myth that steam locomotives were unable to ascend steep grades under their own power, but the section of the railroad here in the Berkshires was nonetheless challenging for trains. Whistler had selected locomotives that were built by Ross Winans of Baltimore, a friend of his whose daughter Julia would later marry his son George. Nicknamed “crabs,” presumably because of their eight drive wheels and Maryland origins, these locomotives proved unreliable here on the Western Railroad, and the railroad ultimately resorted to custom building their own mountain locomotives at their shops in Springfield.

Despite these setbacks, the railroad overall proved to be a success, and for many years it was the only east-west railroad through the Berkshires, providing an important transportation link between Boston and the rest of the country. Although it was originally built as a single-track railroad, Whistler had wisely designed the bridges and other structures to accommodate a second track. This made the initial construction costs higher, but in the long run it saved the railroad money by making it easy to add a second track without having to reconstruct all of the bridges.

For travelers along the route, this section through the Berkshires was a highlight of their journey. The 1847 travel guide A Chart and Description of the Boston and Worcester and Western Railroads, published only six years after the railroad opened, provides the following description:

No language that we are master of could give the traveller any proper description of the wildness, the grandeur, or the obstacles surmounted in the construction of this portion of the route. The river is exceedingly crooked, and the lofty mountains, which are very steep and rugged, and of solid rock, shut down quite to the river on both sides, their sharp points shooting by each other, rendering crossings at every bend of the stream indispensable. In addition to this, the points of the hills must be cut away, and for many miles these rock cuttings and bridges follow each other in regular and rapid succession. . . . Nor does the passing traveller, hurling along as rapidly as he is, see much of the beauty of this mountain gorge. It is not until he has seen, from the base of these mighty structures of art, the passage of the cars, that their magnificence is really felt.

The Western Railroad would ultimately merge with the Boston and Worcester in 1867, forming the Boston and Albany Railroad. This company would, in turn, be leased by the New York Central starting in 1900, although this line retained the Boston and Albany name well into the 20th century. In the meantime, the railroad continued to make improvements to the route, including some changes here along the banks of the Westfield River. A few of the original bridges were replaced, including the easternmost one, which was replaced in 1866 with the current double arch bridge. The next bridge upstream from there was replaced in 1912 with the current steel deck truss girder bridge, although the original stone abutments appear to still be there, encased in poured concrete. Much further upstream, the westernmost two bridges were apparently reconstructed in 1928 after having been damaged in a flood, although it is possible that portions of the original bridges are still underneath the concrete.

However, the most significant change to this portion of the railroad occurred in 1912, when about a mile of the railroad was rerouted, including the section shown here in these two photos. The first photo was probably taken only a few years before this occurred. The postcard is undated, and does not have a postmark, but it has an undivided back, suggesting that it was printed before 1907. As part of this realignment, the railroad shifted to the south side of the river, eliminating two of the river crossings. One of the original bridges, located about 300 yards west of here, was demolished as part of this project, in order to make room for a new bridge. Three other original bridges were simply abandoned, including this one here, which is the westernmost of the three.

Today, more than a century after the railroad was rerouted, these three bridges are still standing. One of them, the easternmost, is still on land owned by the railroad, and it is directly adjacent to the active rail line, so it is not accessible to the public. However, the other two bridges, along with the 3,000-foot section of abandoned railroad right-of-way between them, are now owned by the state as part of the Walnut Hill Wildlife Management Area. The bridges are accessible by way of the Keystone Arch Bridge Trail, a 2.5-mile long trail that starts in Chester. Despite being over 180 years old, and despite not having been maintained in well over 100 years, these bridges remain in good condition, clearly fulfilling Whistler’s goal of creating bridges of “a more costly and permanent character.”

As the travel guide had indicated back in 1847, it is hard to get a sense of the scale of these bridges from the railroad. Even today, it is hard for visitors to tell just how big these bridges are while standing atop them, and photographs are likewise unable to capture the full scope of these structures. Only by climbing down to the river and looking up at the arches can a visitor fully appreciate the size of the bridges, and the work that went in to building them in the middle of a river gorge in one of the most remote areas of the state.

Of the three surviving bridges, the one here in this scene is the largest. Including the wingwalls, the structure of the bridge is over 500 feet long, the bridge deck is about 25 feet wide, and the top of the bridge rises about 75 feet above the river. The bottom of the arch is about 60 feet above the water, and the total span of the arch is 54 feet. The bridge is mostly in its original condition, although about three-quarters of the parapet stones are gone, having apparently been pushed over the edge by vandals over the years.

In 1980, this bridge was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure in the Middlefield–Becket Stone Arch Railroad Bridge District. Then, in 2021, the two surviving stone arch bridges on public property, including this one, were designated as National Historic Landmarks as part of the Western Railroad Stone Arch Bridges and Chester Factory Village Depot district. The district is also comprised of the railroad bed in between the two bridges, including the large rock cut and stone retaining wall, along with the historic railroad station in the center of Chester, several miles to the east of here. This station is owned by the Chester Railway Station and Museum, which features an extensive collection of artifacts relating to the Western Railroad and the construction of these bridges.

For more information on the history of these bridges, the National Historic Landmark Nomination Form is an excellent resource. The Friends of the Keystone Arches also has an excellent website, with plenty of historical information and photographs, along with information about hiking to the bridges.

City Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

The northeast corner of Philadelphia City Hall, seen from the corner of Market and Filbert Streets, around 1905. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

Throughout most of the 19th century, Philadelphia’s municipal government was located in the old city hall building, adjacent to Independence Hall at the corner of Chestnut and Fifth Streets. Built in the 1790s, when Philadelphia had a population of barely 30,000 people, this building had become too small for the rapidly-growing city by the mid-19th century. The result was a new city hall, shown here in these two photos. It would be everything that the small, plain Federal-style building was not: it would be massive and architecturally opulent. Upon completion, it also held the title of the tallest habitable building in the world, marking the only time that a building in Philadelphia would hold this distinction.

The site of the current city hall had previously been a park, known as Centre Square. This park had been a part of William Penn’s original design for the city’s street grid, and it proved to be an ideal location for city hall, at the intersection of the north-south oriented Broad Street and the east-west Market Street. The building was designed by John McArthur Jr., a Scottish-born architect who spent most of his life in Philadelphia. His design featured a Second Empire-style exterior, which was particularly popular for government buildings in the United States during the post-Civil War era. Work began in 1871, but it would ultimately take 30 years to finish, at a cost of $25 million, thanks to construction cost overruns and governmental corruption.

City Hall is laid out in the shape of a square, with seven floors surrounding a central courtyard. In the middle of each side of the building is a large, ornate pavilion that rises above and projects outward from the rest of the building, as shown on the rights side of this scene. On the ground floor of each pavilion is an open archway leading into the courtyard. Along with these pavilions, the building also features matching turrets at each of the four corners. However, by far the most distinguishing feature of City Hall is the tower here at the northern side of the building. It rises 548 above the street, and it is topped by a 37-foot statue of William Penn that was designed by sculptor Alexander Milne Calder.

Although the interior was not completed until 1901, portions of the building were in use by the late 1870s. The tower topped out in 1894, surpassing Germany’s Ulm Minster as the tallest habitable building in the world. As such, it became the first non-religious building in recorded history to hold this distinction, and it would also become the last non-commercial building to do so. Its height was eventually surpassed by the Singer Building in 1908, and since then all of the record holders have been modern skyscrapers. Because of this, Philadelphia City Hall has a unique position on the timeline of the world’s tallest buildings, representing a transition from the cathedrals of the 19th century to the skyscrapers of the 20th century.

Despite its record-setting height, the size of City Hall is somewhat deceptive when viewed in photographs. Part of this was intentional on McArthur’s part, as the arrangement of windows gives the appearance, at first glance, that there are only three floors above the ground floor. This illusion affects the apparent scale of the tower as well, and it is hard to tell from a photograph that the statue is actually 37 feet tall, rather than simply being life-sized. As a result, photographs do not fully capture just how massive this building is. However, it is quite the imposing building when seen in-person, and this would have been even more so for the people in the first photo, which was taken when City Hall was still the world’s tallest building.

Unfortunately for architect John McArthur, the many construction delays meant that he did not live to see the completion of his magnum opus; he died in 1890, at the age of 66. These delays also meant that, by the time it was completed, the design of City Hall was hopelessly out of date. By the late 19th century, tastes had shifted away from the highly ornate features of Second Empire architecture, and City Hall was seen as a relic of an earlier era. This criticism started even before the construction was finished, with the Philadelphia Inquirer declaring it to be an “architectural monstrosity” that “always will be until that bizarre French roof is ripped off and a couple of substantial stories added.”

City Hall would continue to face criticism after its completion, both for its design and also for its location in the middle of a major intersection. As early as 1916 there were calls for its demolition. The Inquirer reiterated its criticism of the design, which the newspaper believed “belongs to a thoroughly discredited era of architectural merit.” Furthermore, the building “blocks our two chief streets and hampers developments which are essential to the welfare of the people and to Philadelphia’s progress.” Consequently, the Inquirer argued, “everyone will agree that where it stands now is an obstruction and a nuisance and the only open question relates to the expediency from a practical and business-like viewpoint of its obliteration.”

This proposal ultimately gained little headway, but the building survived several more serious proposals to demolish it, including one in the 1950s. However, this plan failed in part because of the enormous expense of demolishing such a large masonry structure; the demolition costs would have been roughly equal to what it had cost to build City hall a half century earlier.

Despite the long history of criticism of City Hall, it retained the title of tallest building in Philadelphia throughout most of the 20th century, thanks to an informal gentleman’s agreement that no building should rise higher than the statue of William Penn. However, its height was ultimately surpassed by One Liberty Place in 1987, and other skyscrapers soon followed. Because of this, City Hall is now only the 12th-highest in the city.

Today, more than 120 years after its completion, City Hall remains in use by Philadelphia’s municipal government. It is the largest city hall in the country in terms of interior floor space, and it also stands as the world’s tallest freestanding masonry building in the world. Several other masonry structures are taller, including the Washington Monument, but these do not qualify as buildings and so are listed in a separate category. Over the years, the views on City Hall’s architectural design have changed, and the building is now highly-regarded as a masterpiece of Second Empire architecture. As a result, in 1976 it was designated as a National Historic Landmark, which is the highest level of federal recognition for a historic building.

Carpenters’ Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (2)

Carpenters’ Hall in Philadelphia, around 1900. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2019:

As explained in more detail in the previous post, Carpenters’ Hall is an important historic landmark in Philadelphia, having been the meeting place for the First Continental Congress in 1774. Over the ensuing years, it would be used for a variety of other purposes, including as a hospital during the American Revolution, as the offices of Secretary of War Henry Knox during the early 1790s, and as the temporary home of both the First Bank of the United States and the Second Bank of the United States. By the mid-19th century it had become an auction house, a comparatively undignified use that helped to inspire the restoration and preservation of the building in 1857.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, Carpenters’ Hall was more than 125 years old, but it still retained its colonial-era exterior appearance. However, by this point the building, which is situated at the end of a narrow alley in the middle of a city block, was hemmed in by much larger buildings. This would remain the case until the mid-century, when the Independence National Historical Park was created. Among the more controversial aspects of the park’s creation was the large-scale demolition of many historic 19th and early 20th century buildings, in order to create a more park-like setting that highlighted only the Revolutionary-era buildings.

Today, Carpenters’ Hall is now twice as old as it had been when the first photo was taken. However, because of the removal of so many surrounding buildings, its exterior setting now more closely resembles what it would have looked like when the delegates to the First Continental Congress arrived here in 1774. It is still owned by its original occupant, the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, and it is open to the public as one of the many preserved 18th century buildings here in Philadelphia.

Carpenters’ Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Carpenters’ Hall, seen looking south from Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, in May 1859. Image courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia, Frederick De Bourg Richards Photograph Collection.

The scene in 2019:

One of the many important Revolutionary War-era landmarks in Philadelphia is Carpenters’ Hall, shown here in these two photos. Despite its rather unusual location at the end of a narrow alley in the midst of a city block, this building played an important role as the meeting place of the First Continental Congress, which convened here in September and October 1774. This gathering was attended by many of the future Founding Fathers, and it marked the first time that the various American colonies gathered together in response to grievances against the British government.

As is suggested by its name, Carpenters’ Hall was—and still is—owned by the Carpenters’ Company of the City and County of Philadelphia, a craft guild comprised of the city’s architects and builders. The building was designed by one of its members, the prominent architect Robert Smith, and the construction work began in 1770. It was not completed until 1775, but it was finished enough to allow its use as a meeting space as early as 1773. Then, in 1774, when the delegates arrived here in Philadelphia, they selected the building as their meeting space. John Adams described it in his diary on September 5, the first day that the First Continental Congress was in session:

At Ten, The Delegates all met at the City Tavern, and walked to the Carpenters Hall, where they took a View of the Room, and of the Chamber where is an excellent Library. There is also a long Entry, where Gentlemen may walk, and a convenient Chamber opposite to the Library. The General Cry was, that this was a good Room, and the Question was put, whether We were satisfyed with this Room, and it passed in the Affirmative. A very few were for the Negative and they were chiefly from Pensylvania and New York.

The convening of the First Continental Congress was largely motivated by the Intolerable Acts that the British had passed against Massachusetts, in response to the Boston Tea Party of 1773. Although the other colonies were not directly affected by these measures, which included closing the port of Boston and dissolving the colonial legislature, the Intolerable Acts raised fears in other colonies that their liberties could similarly be revoked by Parliament. A total of 12 colonies sent delegates to the Continental Congress, with only Georgia declining to participate.

The delegates who met here at Carpenters’ Hall included many leaders who would subsequently go on to play active roles in the American Revolution. The most notable of these were George Washington of Virginia and John Adams of Massachusetts, but other prominent delegates included Samuel Adams of Massachusetts, Roger Sherman of Connecticut, John Jay of New York, and Patrick Henry. However, despite the presence of radical figures like Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry, the assembly also included many moderates who opposed separation from Britain, including Isaac Low of New York and Joseph Galloway of Pennsylvania, both of whom ultimately became loyalists during the American Revolution.

At this point, few delegates were prepared to embrace political independence from Great Britain, so the First Continental Congress ultimately took a moderate stance. The delegates approved the Declaration and Resolves, which outlined colonial grievances against Britain, and they also created the Continental Association, an agreement that involved boycotting British goods while also threatening to ban exports to Britain if the Intolerable Acts were not repealed by the following September. In addition, they agreed to reconvene on May 10, 1775, as what would become the Second Continental Congress.

The First Continental Congress adjourned on October 26, 1774. When the delegates to the Second Continental Congress arrived here in Philadelphia just over six months later, they met in the Pennsylvania State House, now known as Independence Hall, rather than the much smaller Carpenters’ Hall. Aside from a different physical location, the Second Continental Congress also faced very different circumstances, as the American Revolution had begun just three weeks earlier with the battles of Lexington and Concord. The outbreak of war made it more difficult for the moderate delegates to continue advocating reconciliation, as shown by the harsh British response to the Olive Branch petition, and it would eventually lead to Congress famously declaring independence in 1776.

In the meantime, Carpenters’ Hall continued to be used by the Carpenters’ Company, but it also served a number of other roles during and after the Revolution. The Continental Army used it as a hospital and as storage for military supplies, and the British similarly used it as a hospital during their occupation of the city. Then, in 1790, when Philadelphia temporarily became the national capital, Secretary of War Henry Knox had his offices here in this building. A year later, the Carpenters’ Company built a second building here on this site, known as New Hall. The group moved their headquarters to this building, and Knox likewise moved his offices there. However, the Carpenters’ Company continued to rent out their original building to various tenants.

From 1791 to 1793, Carpenters’ Hall was occupied by the Bank of North America, and it subsequently became the temporary home of the First Bank of the United States from 1794 until 1797, when its permanent facility was completed about 50 yards to the east of here. The building’s next tenant was the Bank of Pennsylvania, and in 1798 it became the site of a major bank heist when thieves stole over $160,000 from the vaults. However, one of the men died just a few days later from yellow fever, and the other one was later arrested after attempting to deposit some of his stolen loot here at the bank that he had robbed.

During the early 19th century, Carpenters’ Hall served as the Philadelphia Custom House, and then from 1816 to 1821 it was the home of the Second Bank of the United States, which was located here during the construction of its own building on Chestnut Street. Several other organizations used the building in the 1820s, including the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy, the Musical Fund Society, and the Franklin Institute. Then, starting in 1828 it was rented by auctioneer C. J. Wolbert & Co., who used the building as his auction hall.

Carpenters’ Hall would remain in use as an auction house for nearly 30 years, but by the mid-19th century some began to lament the fact that such a historic building was being used for such base commercial purposes. In 1848, historian Benson J. Lossing visited the building, which at the time bore a banner on the façade advertising for Wolbert’s company. Lossing subsequently wrote about how the “very Temple of Freedom” was covered in the “placards of grovelling Mammon.” Continuing the biblical imagery, he challenged the people of Philadelphia, asking “[i]s there not patriotism strong enough in Philadelphia to enter the temple, and ‘cast out all them that buy and sell, and overthrow the tables of the money-changers?’”

The Carpenters’ Company ultimately chose to heed his words, and drove out the money-changers, in the metaphorical sense. In 1856, they voted to not renew Wolbert’s lease, and when he left the organization began restoring the building to its original appearance. It was rededicated on September 5, 1857, on the 83rd anniversary of the opening of the First Continental Congress. Reporting on the event the next day, the Sunday Dispatch praised the restoration of the building, writing about how the Carpenters’ Company,

determined that henceforth the old Hall should go into a respectable and dignified retirement, and that for the food it had already done, it should no more be the scene of traffic. The society have fitted the ancient Hall up in handsome style, and, while doing so, they have adhered as closely as practicable to the original plan of the building, and Carpenters’ Hall is now nearly in the same condition it was in when the historical events occurred which gave it importance. 

The first story, in which the first Continental Congress assembled, has been grained in imitation of oak, and such articles of new furniture as it was necessary to procure, have been made in a style to comport with the ancient relics preserved in the building, and which tradition says were used there by Congress in 1774. . . .

The Carpenters’ Society intend keeping the Hall sacred for the future, and citizens and strangers will be afforded an opportunity of visiting and inspecting this relic of the most interesting period of the city’s history.

The upper part of the building has been handsomely fitted up with a library and meeting room for the members of the society, and with rooms for the residence of the janitor and his family. In the library are several of the original fire buckets which belonged to the hall before the introduction of a hose.

Outside the Hall, in front of the building, a neat grass plot and flower beds have been laid out, and handsome lamps occupy the sides of the main entrance. The inside of the building has also been supplied with elegant and appropriate chandeliers, brackets, &c., which were designed purposely by their manufacturers.

The first photo was taken less than two years later by Frederick De Bourg Richards, as part of an effort to document Philadelphia’s historic buildings. It shows the north side of the building, looking down the narrow alley connecting it to Chestnut Street. The buildings in the foreground hide much of Carpenters’ Hall, and the one on the right also blocks the view of New Hall, which stood just to the northwest of Carpenters’ Hall. These modern buildings provide an interesting contrast to the old colonial-era landmark, in particular the advertisements for California-bound steamships, which indicate just how much the nation had changed since the First Continental Congress convened here less than a century earlier.

Today, more than 160 years after the first photo was taken, much of this scene has changed. At some point New Hall was demolished, as were the commercial buildings in the foreground. Some of these may have been demolished as part of the creation of the Independence National Historical Park, which involved the removal of most 19th century buildings across several city blocks. However, Carpenters’ Hall itself is still standing in the distant center of this scene. It is still owned by the Carpenters’ Company, and it is open to the public with free admission. In the present-day scene, it is joined here by a 1960s reconstruction of New Hall on the right, which now serves as the New Hall Military Museum, and on the left by the Pemberton House, a 1960s reconstruction of a colonial-era mansion.

William Cullen Bryant Homestead, Cummington, Mass

The William Cullen Bryant Homestead on Bryant Road in Cummington, around 1890. Image from Picturesque Hampshire (1890).

The scene in 2020:

These two photos show the childhood home—and later the summer home—of William Cullen Bryant, a prominent 19th century poet and newspaper publisher. The house was built in 1783 by his grandfather, Ebenezer Snell, who had moved to Cummington from North Bridgewater a decade earlier. At the time, Cummington was a small, remote settlement in the Berkshire Mountains, located along upper reaches of the north branch of the Westfield River. The first colonial settlers did not arrive here until 1762, and it was not formally incorporated as a town until 1779.

Ebenezer Snell and his wife Sarah were both in their mid-30s when they moved to Cummington. They brought four young children with them, including William Cullen Bryant’s mother Sarah, and they subsequently had a fifth child while living in Cummington. By the time they moved into this house in 1783, the younger Sarah was about 15 years old. She continued living here as an adult, and in 1792 the family took in a boarder, Dr. Peter Bryant. Like the Snell family, he was from North Bridgewater, and he he was a year older than Sarah.

According to tradition, Peter Bryant had fallen in love with Sarah while the Snells were still in North Bridgewater, and he subsequently followed them here to Cummington. This seems rather improbable or exaggerated, since he and Sarah were about five or six years old when the Snells left North Bridgewater. Either way, though, Peter and Sarah soon fell in love here in Cummington, and they were married in October 1792. They subsequently moved into their own house in town, where their first child, Austin, was born six months after their marriage.

Peter and Sarah’s second child was William Cullen Bryant, who was born at their home on November 3, 1794. Soon after, the family suffered financial trouble after Peter lost money in a risky investment. They lived in the nearby town of Plainfield for several years, and they ultimately moved in with Sarah’s parents here at their home in Cummington in the spring of 1799, when William Cullen Bryant was four years old.

The move here to the family homestead proved to be a transformative experience for the future poet. The house is located about two miles west of the town center, on a northeast-facing slope that overlooks the Westfield River Valley. The land around the house was mostly open fields and pastureland, but the outlying portions of the property were largely forested. Most famously, this included the Rivulet, a stream that flows past the house and through an old growth forest on the northeastern edge of the lot. This stream was a favorite childhood haunt of Bryant, who wrote some of his earliest lines of poetry along its banks, and he later memorialized it in his poem “The Rivulet.”

Writing many years later in 1872 in a letter to a friend, Bryant provided the following description of the landscape surrounding his childhood home:

The site of the house is uncommonly beautiful. Before it, to the east, the ground descends, first gradually, and then rapidly, to the Westfield River flowing in a dep and narrow valley, from which is heard, after a copious rain, in the roar of its swollen current, itself unseen. In the spring-time, when the frost-bound waters are loosened by a warm rain, the roar and crash are remarkably loud as the icy crust of the stream is broken, and the masses of ice are swept along by the flood over the stones with which the bed of the river is paved. Beyond the narrow valley of the Westfield the surface of the country rises again gradually, carrying the eye over a region of vast extent, interspersed with farm-houses, pasture-grounds, and wooded heights, where on a showery day you sometimes see two or three different showers, each watering its own separate district; and in winter-time two or three different snow-storms dimly moving from place to place.

Peter Bryant practiced medicine in an office here in this house, and during the early 19th century he achieved some success as a politician. In 1806 he was elected to a one-year term in the state house of representatives, and he subsequently served in that same capacity in 1808, 1809, and 1813, before serving in the state senate in 1818 and 1819.

Throughout this time, Peter Bryant was a staunch Federalist, and he instilled these political beliefs in young William. Although he would become famous for his nature poetry, some of William Cullen Bryant’s earliest poems were political. Among these was “The Embargo,” a satire that criticized Thomas Jefferson and the financial crisis caused by his infamous Embargo Act of 1807. Published in 1808 when Bryant was just thirteen, the poem is more than 500 lines in length. In one particularly scathing stanza, Bryant declared Jefferson to be “scorn of every patriot name, / Thy country s ruin and thy council s shame!” Bryant even alluded to the rumors about his affair with Sally Hemings, telling Jefferson to “sink supinely in her sable arms; / But quit to abler hands the helm of state.”

This poem and other similar politically-charged works would later become a source of some embarrassment for Bryant once he matured, but these poems earned him some notability as promising young poet. Although its reviewer disagreed with Bryant’s critical stance on Jefferson, the Monthly Anthology nonetheless admired his talents, declaring that “[w]e have never met with a boy of that age who had attained to such a command of language and to so much poetic phraseology.”

However, despite this early talent as a poet, Bryant’s career goal was to become a lawyer. To that end, he enrolled in Williams College in 1810 at the age of 16, but left at the end of the school year. He intended to continue his studies at Yale, but his father’s still-precarious financial situation forced him to change his plans. Instead, he read law—essentially a legal apprenticeship—with two different lawyers, and he was ultimately admitted to the bar in 1815.

Bryant began his legal career in Plainfield, but he continued to live here at the family homestead for a year, walking seven miles a day in each direction to get to his office. Then, around 1816 he moved to the much larger town of Great Barrington in the southwest corner of the state, where he practiced law for the next nine years. However, he was still publishing poetry during this time, including his most famous poem, “Thanatopsis.” Bryant had actually written the poem around 1811 when he was just 17, but it was published in 1817 and eventually became Bryant’s most significant contribution to the American canon of literature. The poem approaches death from a naturalistic perspective, describing how death is not something to be feared since the body becomes part of the natural world. The poem includes many vivid descriptions of nature, which were likely influenced by Bryant’s time here at the homestead in Cummington.

“Thanatopsis” would prove to be the high point of Bryant’s career as a poet, but he subsequently went on to achieve prominence as a newspaper editor. Having grown tired of Great Barrington, Bryant moved to New York City, where he worked as a magazine editor before becoming editor-in-chief of the New York Daily Post in 1829. He would go on to hold this position for the next half century, until his death in 1878. Throughout this time, the Post was one of the nation’s leading newspapers, and he used the paper to advocate for liberal causes such as abolitionism, organized labor, and immigrant rights. In 1860, he played an important role in Abraham Lincoln’s nomination, using his influence to generate support in the eastern states for the relatively obscure former congressman from Illinois.

In the meantime, the rest of the Bryant family also began to look beyond the old family homestead here in Cummington. Just as Ebenezer Snell had moved his family west from North Bridgewater in the 1770s, the later generations of his family also saw greater opportunities further to the west. Farming was difficult in the rocky, mountainous hill towns of western Massachusetts, and many families were drawn to the newly-formed territories and states, lured by promises of better farmland and greater opportunities. Many of these towns experienced population loss in the mid-19th century, including Cummington, which peaked in population in 1830 with 1,261 residents, before entering a 90-year decline. By 1920, the town had barely a third of its 1830 population, and experienced only moderate growth in the second half of the 20th century. Even today, the population of Cummington and many other hill towns is substantially lower than it was in the mid-19th century.

Among those who joined the exodus from Cummington were William Cullen Bryant’s younger brothers Arthur, John, and Cyrus, who moved away in the early 1830s and eventually made their way to Illinois. This left only the eldest brother Austin here at the homestead with their widowed mother Sarah, who continued to struggle financially and fell into debt. William helped with the interest payments on the loans, but Sarah and Austin ultimately decided to sell the property in 1835, much to William’s disappointment.

The new owner of the house was Welcome Tillson, a farmer who was in his mid-30s at the time. He lived here for the next 30 years, and at some point during this time he removed the wing that had once housed Bryant’s father’s office. This small piece of the building was, according to Bryant, subsequently moved down the hill to the banks of the Westfield River. During the 1860 census Welcome and his wife Sarah were in their late 40s, and were living here with their 28-year-old son Cyrus and his wife Elizabeth. He owned about 500 acres of improved land and 35 acres of unimproved land, and his agricultural output in 1860 consisted primarily of butter, cheese, wheat, corn, oats, potatoes, and maple syrup.

In 1865 Bryant, who was now 70, purchased the property from Tillson for use as a summer home. It was also intended to serve as a place of quiet rest for his wife Frances, who was in poor health. He soon set about making renovations, including adding a third story by raising the original section of the house and then constructing a new first floor underneath it. Bryant also added a replica of his father’s office to the southwest corner of the house. This one-story wing served as Bryant’s study, and it is visible on the left side of both photos here. However, Frances Bryant did not live long enough to see these renovations completed; she died in July 1866, just a year after her husband purchased the house.

Aside from these changes to the house, Bryant also made improvements to the grounds, including planting some 1,300 apple trees and a variety of other fruit trees. Immediately to the west of the house, in the distance of the first photo, Bryant planted a row of pine trees to act as a wind break, and further down the hill from here he built a small pond to serve as a source of ice that could be harvested and stored for the summer. In addition, he made two different additions to the barn on the other side of the street, first in 1866 and then in 1875. This barn had been built by Welcome Tillson after he purchased the property, replacing an earlier one that Peter Bryant had constructed on the same site in 1801.

Bryant continued to spend his summers here in Cummington for the rest of his life, generally arriving in late July and staying until early September. He died in New York City on June 12, 1878 at the age of 83, but this property remained in his family for several more generations. His younger daughter Julia inherited the house, and she owned it when the first photo was taken around 1890, although she spent most of her later years in Paris, where she lived with her cousin and presumed romantic partner, Anna Fairchild.

Julia died in 1907 and left this house to Anna Fairchild, who owned it until 1917, when she sold it to Julia’s niece Minna Godwin Goddard, who was the daughter of Bryant’s older daughter Frances. Minna then owned it until her own death in 1927, and in her will she left the property to the Trustees of Reservations, with the stipulation that her son Conrad would have life tenancy rights. The family also donated furniture and other items to the Trustees, and in 1931 Conrad built a caretaker’s house to the north of the main house, just out of view on the far right side of this scene.

Today, nearly a century after the Minna Goddard left this property to the Trustees and more than 230 years after her great-great grandfather Ebenezer Snell built the house, this house is still standing as an important historic landmark. As shown in these two photos, very little has changed here in this scene since the first photo was taken around 1890. Even some of the trees are still standing from the first photo. The three large maples in the foreground are the same ones from the first photo, and they were originally planted here in the early 19th century by the Bryant family.

The Bryant Homestead is still owned by the Trustees, which owns a number of other historic sites and conservation areas throughout Massachusetts. Here in Cummington, this property features not only the historic house but also nearly 200 acres of surrounding land. Several hiking trails wind through this landscape, including one that runs alongside the Rivulet, through the same old growth forest that first inspired Bryant more than two centuries ago. Overall, the homestead looks much the same as it did when Bryant acquired it in 1865, and it is one of the many important literary landmarks here in New England.

Thoreau’s Cove, Walden Pond, Concord, Mass (2)

The view looking northeast toward Thoreau’s Cove in Walden Pond, around 1900-1910. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, Detroit Publishing Company Collection.

The scene in 2020:

This small cove at the northern end of Walden Pond is known as Thoreau’s Cove, and it is explained in more detail in an earlier post. The photos in that post show the view looking south from the far end of the cove, while these two photos here show the view from the opposite direction. The cove is named for Transcendentalist writer Henry David Thoreau, who famously spent two years, two months, and two days living in a cabin here in the woods at Walden Pond, about 200 feet to the north of this cove.

Thoreau lived here from July 1845 to September 1847, and he subsequently wrote about his experiences in his 1854 book Walden. In explaining his daily routine, Thoreau wrote how, “I got up early and bathed in the pond; that was a religious exercise, and one of the best things which I did.” Later in the book, he explained how he would return to the pond after completing his morning work, writing, “[a]fter hoeing, or perhaps reading and writing, in the forenoon, I usually bathed again in the pond, swimming across one of its coves for a stint, and washed the dust of labor from my person, or smoothed out the last wrinkle which study had made, and for the afternoon was absolutely free.”

Thoreau did not identify the exact location on the shoreline where he bathed in the pond. However, author Robert M. Thorson, in his 2018 book The Guide to Walden Pond, concluded that it was this spot here, where these two photos were taken. Although the northern end of the cove was closer to his cabin, it is also shallow, muddy, and weedy, so it seems more likely that he walked the extra distance here to this spot, where he could access the water by way of a gravel beach. From here, Thoreau could also observe the entire pond, rather than having the very limited views from the northern end of the cove.

Near the end of the book, Thoreau described how he had inadvertently created a path between his cabin and the shoreline, writing “I had not lived there a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side; and though it is five or six years since I trod it, it is still quite distinct.” He used this path as a metaphor for the tendency of people to conform, and it served as an example for why he decided to move out of his cabin, because he needed to move on to something new.

By the time the first photo was taken at the turn of the 20th century, it had been more than 50 years since Thoreau had lived here. His old path was likely long gone by that point, but many more undoubtedly appeared in the intervening years. The pond became a popular destination during the second half of the 19th century, and from 1866 to 1902 it featured an amusement park at the western end, directly behind where these photos were taken.  Then, by the early 20th century the eastern end of the pond was also developed, and became a popular local swimming area.

The land around Walden Pond was ultimately donated to the state in 1922, and it became the Walden Pond State Reservation. Today, the pond is far busier than it had ever been during Thoreau’s time, particularly on summer weekends. However, the it attracts crowds throughout the year, and the 2020 photo shows plenty of people walking along the shoreline, despite it being a cool day in mid October. Overall, though. not much has changed here in this particular scene. The cove looks essentially the same as it did when the first photo was taken more than a century ago, and it likely looks similar to what Thoreau would have seen as he waded into the water here for his morning swim.